Rabbi Daniela Szuster
24 May 2014 – 24 Iyar 5774
“Dor Hamidbar: Rebellious Generation and Source of Knowledge”
This Shabbat we begin the reading of the fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar, with the parashah of the same name. As its name suggests, this book tells the story of the wandering of the children of Israel through the wilderness.
What do we find in this book? Complaints of all kinds coming from the people. About the food, yearning for the full pots they always had in Egypt, objecting to the manna, because they wanted to eat meat. There was also questioning about the leadership of Aaron and Moses, as exemplified by the revolt of Korach and his followers.
In addition, there are great controversies, such as the public display of lewdness by a prince of Israel with a Midianite women and the decisive reaction to it by Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, as well as the dramatic conclusion that the people would not enter the Promised Land, on account of the pessimism of the 10 spies and the spreading of that attitude throughout the people. These are just a few of the many subjects covered in this book.
We also find the Hebrew slaves in transition, from the ideal related in previous books to the reality of what they will do, once they get to Israel.
How might we characterize this generation of the desert (Dor Hamidbar)?
It’s a generation in the desert, on the move, going from place to place. As Antonio Machado said, “Traveler, there is no path. A path is made by walking.” It is a generation trying to create a new path, in spite of the burden of its cruel, painful past.
According to Pirkei Avot, it is a generation that tested G-d ten times (Pirkei Avot 5:7). There is an interesting contrast with the patriarch Abraham, of whom it is said that G-d tested him ten times (idem., 5:4). The man of faith was tested, while the rebellious generation tested G-d Himself.
Psalm 78 describes this generation as “… a stubborn and rebellious generation;a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not steadfast with God” (Psalms 78:8).
While the generation of the wilderness is often seen in a negative light, there are at least some positive references. For example in the book of Jeremiah, G-d recalls the people of the desert generation fondly: “I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of your espousals; how you went after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). Here we see that G-d has fond memories, like those of a couple remembering the first moments of their love.
Our sages also refer to this generation as “DorDe-ah,” the generation of knowledge. This might be due to the fact that this generation erred on more than one occasion, yet still could learn from its mistakes. As the Talmud says: “Ein hadam omed al Divrei Tora ela im ken nichshal baem”, “A man does not fully understand the words of the Torah until he has come to grief over them (Talmud Babli Gitin 43a). One needs to experience failure, in order to advance and improve.
Another explanation is that year after year, as we read of their lives, their wandering, their failures, we learn. They are for us Torah, life lessons. Thus was this a generation that produced knowledge.
We therefore see that there are at least two different perspectives regarding this generation, one positive and one negative. Some see in this generation an ungrateful, pessimistic, faithless people, while others see a rebellious generation that stimulated knowledge and critical thinking.
Perhaps they were both. We human beings are neither good nor bad, black or white; we are both simultaneously, in numerous different measures.
This generation might be seen as representing the period of adolescence in human beings. It is common for youth to complain during this stage, to rebel against the established order, and to challenge authority. They experience many crises, all of which are necessary to grow, get stronger, forge an identity, and develop.
May it be G-d’s will that as we read the book of Devarim this year, a critical, questioning spirit awakens in us, one that is also able to learn from mistakes and failure, and, as did the generation of the wilderness, generates knowledge that can be passed to future generations.